I have to admit I am a little surprised that Phil doesn’t see it. He just doesn’t appreciate what’s different about Jessica. Of course it’s not the name. I’m very proud of Jessica. Isn’t that what mothers in particular are supposed to be? Proud, overjoyed. Not depressed. Certainly not critical.
But when the doctor plonked Jessica on my belly – you know that time when we’re officially supposed to forget about any pain in order to continue with the next little tacker. No, he place the warm squawking cute little thing on my belly and I gazed at her downy head through a mist of tears. Her skin glowed with a frosty silver translucence.
“Are you happy Susan?” the obstetrician queries soothingly. His white gown next to my near nakedness leaves me feeling he was a little overdressed.
“I don’t think she’s really different to any other baby.” Chortles Mr Evans.
“I can’t see anything wrong.” Puts in my partner Phil. What was the use of him? It was hard enough getting him at the birth at all. He said birthing wasn’t’ his thing. It didn’t feel very sexy.
I told him, a little irritably I admit, that birthing wasn’t about sex. That was history. Phil says that that was part of my problem, that I treated our relationship as though it was history.
“Can’t you see Phil?” the child is different. I hadn’t started calling her Jessica at that point. Phil would probably want to name the child Yvonne after his mother. I wonder what sense of misplaced loyalty can induce Phil to plug a name that was so awful.
I gaze down at the child’s translucent flesh.
“You’re happy darling.” His face splits into a wan smile.
“You don’t notice anything?”
“What am I supposed to notice darling?” His eyes bulge.
“The baby.” do you mind if we call it Jessica?”
Phil’s lip quivers. He wants to say something. Will he defer to a mother’s prerogative/ doesn’t he know that the woman always has the final say?
“I thought we could call her Yvonne.” Phil was so predictable.
“It seems to be made of glass.” Do I sound to fluffy mother? Are all new mothers like this? Some go into depression? I’m not feeling that. Not at the moment. Does it creep up on you like the feeling you really have had too much to drink? I can drink a glass of wine now. A glass of champers to celebrate. Wine sparkles distant as Orion’s belt.
“All babies look a little translucent.” the midwife Sarah adds. Her features shimmer concern. So many women are a little odd in their perceptions. That’s what she thinks I’m sure of it. It will pass.
“Mum?” I query when my mother determinedly youthful in tight jeans eyes the child beside my bed with a critical perusal.
“Do you notice anything wrong?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the baby Susan. You might have been pushed out of shape for a while but you’ll contract back to normal. I’m sorry I shouldn’t have used the word contract.”
“But the baby. Can’t they see?” I look at her, resting beside me. I can see the flowers by the window through her form. Blurred indistinct but there. Isn’t that unusual? You’re not generally supposed to be able to see through a baby. Not in that way.
My friend Sarah arrives. She hasn’t had a child. She thinks I’m sick. She’s short. Maybe she’s got more to worry about. She brings me a hand knitted cardigan she bought at a fete. It’s too big and blue. I try not to be traditional and sexist. Something seems wrong.
“He looks beautiful.” Sarah gushes. I don’t think she means it. It doesn’t flow naturally. You can tell the difference between someone like Sarah and someone who’s known the joy of a child. There’s no effort, no struggling to muster the right words.
“Yes.” I respond. I hope I sound enthusiastic enough.
“You’d think he was the most beautiful baby in the world.” Sarah adds. She looks uncomfortable in this place. There’s a chair but she wont’ sit down. She’s doing the right thing but all the time she appears poised for flight.
“Yes.” I reply. I hope my words sound convincing. I leave a pause so that my next question doesn’t appear connected.
“Do you notice anything different about her?” It doesn’t work. The question is as clumsy as a drug craze Viking at Wedgwood’s.
Sarah offers me a quizzical look and considers.
“No.” The reply is a long time coming. “Should there be?”
Of course not. Still, I am almost disappointed. She doesn’t notice something. Of course the lack of any other comment is a good sign.
And yet her complete lack of attention to anything different means that I’m on my own. Is this a peculiar mother’s insight? Is it some by- product of that particular bonding process?
“No.” assures Sarah. “There’s nothing different.”
“Thanks Sarah.” She is eager to be off. I smile and say she’s a good friend. I wonder if I will ever see her again.
“Are you all right?” My mother arrives travelling towards the bed in her usual gait. She’s a mother and should know. It’s not a life-threatening situation. But then she’s probably thinking otherwise. Many women were lost in the past given the stressful complexity of giving birth.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier Veronica.” She’s the only one that calls me Veronica. Everyone else calls me V. My mother hates it. It does have that advantage. “Frank was having one of his dizzy spells. Frank’s my stepfather. Why does she bother?
“I brought you this.” She presses a familiar object that causes the floodgates of child memory to swing open releasing their contents. It’s my own teddy given to me when I was young. Such a toy would probably be banned these days. Edible buttons. Probably filled with lead and asbestos. Worst of all there are no batteries.
“Mum.” Does Jessica look all right?”
My mother turns and gazes at the baby. My mother does not need to be told who Jessica is. There could be no other.
“Beautiful darling. Thank you for giving me a grandchild.”
“I’m not giving her to you.” I protest.
“Now then Veronica that’s what grandparents are for.”
“Do you want to look after her for eighteen years?”
“All that time. She’ll be grown up by the end of it.
“You catch my drift then.”
“Mother do you notice anything different?” Surely my mother should know. She’s the grandmother; she has a natural affinity with Jessica.
“She’s beautiful.” The adjective is becoming well worn. Of course Jessica is beautiful. I, as the mother, am in the box seat to judge. She’s as beautiful as Venetian glass. Her skin is pale as a lagoon at sunrise. The texture, the sheen of it is vaguely insubstantial. I touch her. The skin is cool, but not glass cool. She takes the brush of my fingers without stirring. Does she know who I am? Don’t panic. Its early days.
“Nothing beyond the usual attractiveness.” Replies my mother. “Except that for Jessica the look is unique.
“I wonder how babies can look that different.” The comment clanks gormless and obvious as an ancient rusting street sign. As though Jessica was some exotic bird of Paradise.
“Nothing else.” I venture. Dreading the answer.
My mother adjusts rimless glasses beneath lustrous blonde hair. I’m sure she’d prefer to have contact lenses.
“Nothing dear. Should there be anything different?”
The world shivers on its foundations. I feel as though I’m looking at the room from beneath a lake. Everything appears distant, watery.
My mother stays, indefatigable, relentlessly conscious of saying the right thing.
She moves towards the door. I haven’t asked her about Frank. I’m not especially interested.
“I need to get back for Frank.”
I wonder about baby sitting. Say nothing. She’s busy.
At home Phil is attentive. Jessica lies in her cot, glistening in the moonlight. Phil bends down and looks at her his lips slightly parted. I wonder if I can ever tell him.
He reaches down and picks up the child. Jessica is still in his arms. I move into the room twinged with concern. He turns a smile fixed like a stage moustache on his face. It can’t be real. Does he really not know? How can he pretend?
He’s gazing down at her, murmurs that she’s beautiful. I want him to stop. It’s not right coming from him. He probably considers those are the right words to say. He simply doesn’t see.
He is beginning to break her. I move further into the room and urge him to put her down. He turns, mild surprise etched across his features. Almost as, with a guilt he perhaps feels should not be there, he places her back in the cot. A solitary finger is left glittering in his hand. I burst into tears that prick. The world swims.
The next morning, the child seems whole and yet the scene is scored indelible across my eyes, like a key scratched on the glass of my memory. I look at Phil across a plate of cornflakes. If he stays around here too long he might find out the truth. Aren’t baby eyes always created to lull the suspicious mind?
There are too many people around coming and going, their smiles draped like Christmas tinsel. This fascination can’t last. My friends will soon be moving on to Bronwyn’s baby due in two months. And then the shift will be to kindergartens choice of school, uniforms and unfair teachers.
My friends Jean and Matilda are handling the baby between them like a game of Pass the Parcel. Both of them want to be the one when the music stops to be holding, treasuring unwrapping. And yet the attentiveness is simultaneously touching. Their fingers reach instinctively, recognising the vulnerability, the essentiality. There seems no attempt to justify, to rationalise, to come to terms with a gulping, screeching demands of an infant who has only lived moments in the world and knows no other. Some aspect of the whole exchange is curiously reassuring. Most mothers have some kind of arrangement. This, no matter what the ration in birth weight might be, or whether the nominated father has been getting fat on cheeseburgers. I want them to stop. To leave me quietly with my own.
Jessica glitters bright in the morning sunlight. I see the shrubs green and twisting through her body. The world leaps and dances through the lens of her.
“My mother forces her undeniable affection heavy upon me. I know she’s judging. I can never be a mother with the level of attentiveness she’s displayed. I’ll never live up to those standards. She’s boiling a kettle for tea. Not the kettle the water in the kettle. Her mind stalks her. Wanting to trip her up.”
“Just relax pet. This is your time. You won’t be able to relax for too much longer.
In other words not until the child’s eighteen. What’s this? I’ve suffered as a mother. Now’s your chance to realise what an extreme sacrifice your father and I have made.
The tea scalds my lips. She tells me not to drink so fast as though I am the one needing babying.
The baby cries, thin and high. My mother touches the face. The little nose like a mountain of ice breaks beneath her fingers. I want to tell her to leave. My lips curl in a smile of gratitude.
“You shouldn’t go to all this bother.”
“I’m sure it’s only one of many things I can do to help. After all I’m sure you’ll want me and your father to do quite a bit of babysitting.“
“Why?” I query emptily. Heading out is the last alternative at the moment. Parties are for people picking up. I’m just busy. My single friends don’t get it. That’s perhaps why they won’t be my friends for much longer.
The next day, I find Phil holding Jessica high above the cot. The afternoon sun glitters on her thin arms. He’s going to break her this time. He really is.
I scream at him. Tell him he can’t touch Jessica like that. He’s going to hurt her and in any case does he know?
“Phil.” The word hangs, a stop sign in the corner of the room. Stop walking down at your own risk.
I inform him of the truth. About me and Greg and how Phil isn’t really part of it. I don’t know why I tell him. It just seems he should know in the white light of morning.
The sun etches dust on the beige carpet. Some time it will be vacuumed. At the moment I see every grain. His eyes widen. His fingers flail.
The little body slips from his fingers, smashes on the kitchen tiles. HE is a statue cut from ice as though the hardness is now in him.
I dive to my knees feel the fragments against my hands. Jessica’s gone. I want them to cut, for the shards to bite like translucent teeth into my palms. I should have taken more care. Jessica’s broken. I can’t believe it. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men. She’ll never be whole again.
Phil’s last move. He never meant it. Terribly things blossom like weeds even when they’re unintended. The results are the same. He’s mouthing sorry where sorry is a tactless one liner that stings like science lab acid thrown in the face.
He reaches for me. No, I scream. My arms are thin and hard. He holds me close and my body is snapping against him. I can feel my ribs blue veins in glasses. The window beats green filtered light through me.
He looks at me, as though saying goodbye to a person he had once admired. I can no longer lure him by moonlight. The cracks grin, blemishes yawn like mountain ranges.
He shrugs and moves towards the front door. Pauses, as though I would, could transform him like a spell into someone who actually loves.
I utter nothing. The incantation is not even still born on my lips. There are no frogs wizarding staffs or juices of rocks and milk from the moon
I stand, my body still hard in the kitchen’s skeletal light. I bend down and hold between the fingers of my right hand something that glitters. It is almost breathing in its purity, in its beauty as though fashioned in love that very morning. It is a small glass foot.